Bai Ju Rong



Bai Ju Rong, aka Bak Keui Wing (1892-1974) is one of my favorite singers. He was trained as a youth in the role of Xiaosheng, one of the subtypes of the main male role known as Sheng. Xiaosheng roles were handsome young men involved in various romantic intrigues and adventures. Bai Ju Rong went on to be thought of as the “Xiaosheng King” and made a major impact on Cantonese opera in the 1920’s. He re-defined almost every aspect of the performance; most importantly he switched from using the archaic “Official Cantonese (which many could not understand) to using vernacular language. He also changed the singing from an affected high voice to a natural, flowing “true voice” and made his mark on the use of gestures and melodic recitation.He started losing his sight and eventually had to quite performing. By 1948 he was reduced to singing in the street. Amazingly, he made a comeback and was again very successful. In 1958 he became principal of the Guangdong Opera School. This is part one of four.

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Here’s a beautiful Cantonese recording. I love this old style which is sparse but with a great rhythmic groove. Many people think of Chinese Opera as being very arrhythmic, and it certainly can be, but this record and many others are played in the same way fiddle music is played all over the world, with a steady pulse.

According to the label, this is a Hua Dan role performed by Xiao Hong Xin. Dan is the name for female roles in China, Hua Dan being one of half a dozen common female roles. Hua Dan is a younger, coquettish female who usually accompanies a Gui Men Dan, a virtuous older Lady, exemplified by the superstar Mei Lan Fang. Often these roles were performed by men, but I believe that Xiao Hong Xin is a woman. (Thanks to David Du for translations).

Thanks to the erudite JW over at Excavated Shellac the mystery is cleared up…the label is actually called “Hindenburg” with a picture of General Paul von Hindenburg, President of Germany (1925-1934) as the trademark. My apologies to the General for mistaking him for Kaiser Wilhelm! Hindenburg, Pagoda and Polyphon were under the umbrella of Deutsche-Grammophon.
“Mech. Copt. 1927” is stamped in the shellac.

Info from Tan Sooi Beng’s article “The 78 RPM Record Industry in Malaya Prior to World War II” (Asian Music 28/1 (1996)).





Welcome back, Dear Reader, for another dose of of exceedingly obscure Chinese Opera. This time we have an example of Amoy Opera on the His Master’s Voice label. Amoy (aka Hokkien) is a language/dialect from the Southern Chinese province of Fujian, which neighbors the Guangdong province, the origin of our last posting of Teochew Opera. Amoy is directly across the strait from Taiwan and the language and music are basically the same. Like the Teochew people, the Fujian people emigrated to many parts of Southeast Asia, taking their music and language with them. Forms of this opera style are still popular in the region today.

A bit noisy at first, but it clears up…Enjoy!

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Here’s a beautiful and hypnotic Teochew Opera on the obscure Tiger label. Teochew is a Chinese dialect from the Guangdong region of Southern China. The Teochew music bears more resemblance to Southeast Asian music than other Chinese opera forms, especially the Peking opera (in fact, this was recorded in Thailand according to one of our readers, see comments for further info). This record is a great example of the measured rhythm and clear melody of the Teochew style, with little of the wild percussive effects of the Peking style. During the 18th-20th centuries there was much emigration from Guangdong into Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere in the region and a healthy Teochew Opera scene existed in those places until recently.

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In contrast to my first post, which was a prime example of Peiping Opera, here’s a beautiful Cantonese song by Suie Hing, Yea Gua Ba Fu Yung, meaning Night Rescue of Ba Fu Yung. (Thanks again to Seneca Chew for translation.)

Beka recorded many of these amazing Cantonese songs but they tend to be in pretty bad condition…if you have some nice ones let me know!

Cantonese Opera songs tend to have less exuberant percussion and a nice, relaxed pulse with beautifully intertwined Erhu melodies, sometimes sounding like two different songs at once! While all forms of Chinese Opera are more related to folk music than western opera, the southern style, cantonese style, is more folk like than the more stylized northern style, or Peiping opera. Cantonese spread throughout southeast Asia and influenced the local folk theater of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the general region.

Although Peiping Opera is considered a higher art form by some, the 78 rpm era saw a huge amount of Cantonese records being produced due to the massive emmigration of Cantonese speakers to countries around the world. For example, the Cantonese first arrived in California in the mid 19th Century and really boomed during the Gold Rush. San Francisco had a thriving Cantonese Opera scene and there are still amateur opera clubs there today. An excellent website on the subject can be found here, Pear Garden in the West.

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The first time I heard Chinese Opera I was really shocked. I’ve listened to a lot of unusual music, but nothing seemed further from the western concept of music. I knew I was hooked immediately and had to look into this stuff…

I soon learned that there are two main types of Chinese Opera, and I’m talking about the 78 rpm era here, Peiping Opera (aka Peking or Beijing) and Cantonese Opera. Peiping Opera is a bit more “classical” while Cantonese style is a bit more “folk”. It’s good to keep in mind that the history of opera music in China, which was more or less their theater, folklore, and music all rolled into one, is a long and complicated story going back hundreds of years. I’m definitely not qualified to make any definitive statements about which style is older or the tangled webwork of influences.

Peiping Drama, which is what this record is labeled as, usually consists of a fiddle-like instrument called Erhu or Jinghu, or one of the variations on it, and a handful of other stringed instruments. The general cacophony is provided by a rhythm section consisting of gongs, cymbals, woodblocks and such. The singing is in an unnaturally high voice, often sung by men performing the role of a woman (qingyi) and using stylized, archaic words with special pronunciation. This style tends to be much more wild than the Cantonese, with a lot of percussive effects that would be used to accompany physical action on stage such as acrobatics, elaborate fight scenes, hand gestures and general posturing.

Here, then, is a pretty typical example of this style, I’m guessing from the 1920’s. It seems to me that Pathe recorded the most records in this style while other labels tended to record more Cantonese.

The singer is the “Opera King”, Mei Lan Fang, the internationally famous male singer known for qingyi roles. See the film Farewell My Concubine for some nice depiction of this.

Here he sings the prelude to his famous Ba Hwang Bia Gei, meaning Emperor Ba Hwang Bids Farewell to his Concubine. (thanks to Seneca Chew for translation!)

This is the strange story of a famous emperor who is despondent over the loss of his men in battle. The opera culminates with a famously complicated, stylized sword dance performed by his concubine as she commits suicide to express her loyalty to the emperor!

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Mei Lin Fang